Thursday, March 5, 2009

Posse Comitatus

Posse Comitatus, Latin for ‘the force of the country,’ which reflects an American tradition of restraining military involvement in domestic affairs, has been front and center in the news with the release of former President George W. Bush’s legal opinions that claimed sweeping presidential powers in fighting terrorism. But this tradition has not always been observed by U.S. Presidents.

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 resulted in the end the use of federal troops to defend the civil rights of African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. Eighty years later the Act was cited in unsuccessful attempts to stop forced school segregation after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. However because actions taken under the Insurrection Act have always been exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act, Presidents have been able to deploy federal troops inside the United States.

Both Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy suspended the Posse Comitatus Act by invoking the Insurrection Act to send troops to enforce desegregation in Southern states. George H.W. Bush also sent troops to quell the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The Insurrection Act of 1807 also allows the president to deploy federal troops if asked by a state governor.

Teaching Posse Comitatus and the Constitution

Ask your students to read the article Officials Cite Broad Power for President in Post-9/11 Memos , Article II as well as the First and Fourth Amendments. Then ask your students to decide if the Constitution allows the president broad powers like using federal troops inside the U.S. or suspending certain personal rights and liberties.

Ask your students to read about other presidents who have deployed federal troops inside the United States. Then ask them, are there circumstances when the president may need to deploy federal troops inside the United States?

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